Peter Popham: Benedict is not to blame for every failing

He does not enjoy the popularity of John Paul II, but many of this Pope’s problems began in the time of his charismatic predecessor

Sunday 12 September 2010 00:00 BST

I was in St Peter's Square the evening the white smoke came out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney and we learned that Joseph Ratzinger had been elected Pope, and I remember the disappointment among my neighbours in that Roman crowd at the news. They were Catholics, of course, and pretty devout or they wouldn't have been standing there expectantly for hours. But this was not the Bishop of Rome they wanted.

I was reminded of their reaction by the stunningly hostile treatment Benedict XVI has received ahead of his trip to the UK this week. What is it about this man that rubs so many people up the wrong way – even among those who regard him as God's representative on earth?

In the case of the Catholics of Rome, it was nothing to do with paedophilia, an issue which at the time elicited little interest in Italy, and not much to do with condoms, women priests, homosexuality and so on: Catholics are well acquainted with their church's doctrine on these questions and only a wild-eyed optimist could imagine any pope turning around such a deadweight of dogma in a hurry.

Partly it was xenophobia, pure and simple: the Pole Karol Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pope since the 15th century, and, for many Italian believers, one was quite enough to be going on with. To make matters worse, the new Pope was German. The Italians are even more racist about Germans than the British. It comes from being neighbours, and being antithetical in so many ways: it's a long story. But he was not only a German: he was Joseph Ratzinger.

The role of personality in human affairs is mysteriously large. Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, swept the whole world before him thanks to his personality. In his more gnomic fashion the Dalai Lama does the same. These men have a spiritually-charged charisma that television magnifies and multiplies. It doesn't really matter what ideas they may be propounding, people surrender to the magnetism.

Pope Benedict XVI has the opposite effect: even those who share his faith find him hard to love. He comes across as a small person both literally and metaphorically, with neither the physical presence nor the passion to move and impress us. He looks like the sort of person who would have been the target of bullies in the school playground, and he brings out the bully in us, too.

Britain's hoary anti-Catholic tradition seemed dead and buried until he came along; our anti-German feelings have been fading for some time. But Benedict has succeeded in raising both these ghouls from their graves and bringing them down on his own head. Many of the things for which Benedict is blamed were the doing of his predecessor, who could do no wrong in the world's eyes. Wojtyla, a dogmatic conservative, brought Ratzinger to Rome because he saw in him a fellow spirit: if the church is more committed than ever to the conservative agenda, it is a joint effort. Wojtyla saw behind Latin America's Liberation Theology the Communists he had fought so long and hard in Poland: Ratzinger was his willing tool in purging the church of that vigorous and courageous tendency.

Wojtyla threw open his arms to embrace Jews and Hindus and animists, but that was the charismatic actor in him coming out; when his pet theologian reminded him that non-Christians and even non-Catholics were "in grave spiritual peril", he would have nodded his head in sage agreement.

The paedophilia plague, too, is far more Wojtyla's responsibility than Benedict's. During Poland's Communist decades, a common way for the regime to slander Catholic priests was to accuse them of vile sexual offences, including paedophilia. For the rest of his life, Wojtyla, who was bugged and spied on by the secret police as a priest and bishop, saw in such charges the hand of the church's enemies. Conversely, he found stalwart conservative allies among people such as Bernard Law, who refused to step down as Archbishop of Boston even though accused of covering-up the abuse of thousands of children, and the unspeakable Marcial Maciel, the paedophile founder of the Legionaries of Christ, whom he showered with honours. Wojtyla was pope for 26 years, and the culture of complicity in paedophilia sank deep roots in the church during that time.

The extent to which Benedict or anybody else in the uppermost echelons of the church has really got the message about the paedophilia scandal is debatable: the people who know enough to come clean about it are inhibited, not only by the church's addiction to silence – when he was still a cardinal, Ratzinger once slapped a needling CNN reporter on the wrist rather than say anything at all about Marcial Maciel – but also because incautious admissions could land the church in far deeper financial water than it is in already. If the Pope seems mealy-mouthed on the issue, his legal advisers have probably given him no alternative.

We come back to the uncomfortable fact of the weakness and smallness of this incumbent, marooned in his predecessor's shadow. What of his own goals for the church? He has the conservative urge to bring it back to basics, to shed the trappings of the recent past, but that is far easier said than done. The crowd I saw turn down their mouths when his election was announced five years ago were "faithful" Catholics, but most of them probably used contraceptive methods which the church forbids. The Pope's word may be law, but it is transmitted by a small, overloaded Vatican bureaucracy which has only a fitful influence on what actually happens out in the world.

Yet the church's message continues to inspire. Many thousands of Catholics who perhaps pay only lip service to the church's doctrinal strictures continue to do amazing work on the ragged fringes of their societies, inspired by the Gospel, a fact in which our tub-thumping secularists show no interest. It is as the representative of those Catholics, too, that the Pope should be welcomed to Britain.

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